The History of the Office of Sheriff: Chapter 9
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By Schenectady Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi

© 1998. The History of the Office of Sheriff was published and copyrighted in 1998 by Schenectady County Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi.
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. . . . In 1750, county courts were established in all five of Connecticut's counties to hear civil and criminal matters. The enforcement issues of the county were to be handled by five county sheriffs, who were appointed by the governor. The sheriff would bring offenders before the court and carry out mandates. The sheriff in Connecticut was expected to serve and execute all lawful writs, to have power of the "water bailiff" (having authority to search vessels) and to raise the hue and cry as needed. With the advise of the justice of the peace the sheriff was also empowered to raise a militia.

It was the Connecticut sheriff's duty to arrest and bring before the courts capital offenders such as murderers, worshipers of strange gods, witches, blasphemers, rapists, sodomists, adulterers, kidnappers, those bringing false testimony, and anyone rebellious against the colony. Two other offenses were added to Connecticut's capital offense list in 1750. Those being the cursing of parents by a child over the age of sixteen, and "stubbornness" on the part of a child over sixteen. If these offenses were not enough to keep a sheriff busy with enforcement matters, there was a multitude of lesser crimes requiring branding, mutilation, whipping, the pillory, the stocks, imprisonment, and fining.
In 1754, New York's Lt. Gov. James DeLancey, acting as governor after Gov. Danvers Osborn's death, issued the original charter for King's College, now Columbia University (emblem above). Twenty years earlier, as NY Chief Justice, DeLancey had pressed to convict for libel John Peter Zenger whose New York Weekly Journal, shown below, published stinging criticism of the colony's government. The very first issue of the Journal opposed Gov. William Cosby's appointee to the post of High Sheriff. The article included a parody, about a four-foot monkey, directed at the Sheriff. The jury's acquittal struck a blow for free speech and a free press in America.

For example, a sheriff might have been ordered by the court to brand a letter "B" on the forehead of a burglar, as a first offense. Or a sheriff might have been required to whip an incorrigible person on direction of the court. Sheriffs were routinely required to restrain people from unnecessary walking in the streets or fields, swimming, keeping open their shops, or performing their secular occupation on the evening of the Lord's Day, or that day following. Those convicted of profaning the Holy Day itself were severely whipped in public.

Sheriffs were high officials in New York during colonial times and were also enforcement officers for the court. In 1755, Abraham Yates, high sheriff of Albany County, arrested a Massachusetts Bay man over a property dispute. Angered by the apprehension, fellow Massachusetts Bay townsmen kidnapped the prisoner and arrested Sheriff Yates for offending their fellow citizen. Before Yates was released, the Massachusetts court set bail to assure his reappearance. New York Lieutenant Governor James de Lancey, was furious by this act of disrespect to a man of Yates' high position and directed a proclamation to arrest the parties that defiled the authority of his sheriff and his province. This resulted in the killing of William Rees, a Massachusetts Bay man who resisted arrest. Governor Phips of Massachusetts countered with a proclamation of his own, ordering the arrest of the men who were involved in the killing of Rees. This ultimately resulted in the imprisonment of Sheriff Yates in a Massachusetts "gaol" (early spelling of jail) that required the intervention of New York Governor Shirley. Eventually the whole issue was settled in order to secure harmony between the two colonies that were facing an even greater struggle between the English and the French.

By the late 1760s, the political institutions of every colony had a localized form of administration. From Pennsylvania to Georgia, government had reached into the back settlements of their jurisdictions and formed smaller management units. Along with this came positions to make for orderly government. County courts, county sheriffs in enforcement capacities, and representation to provisional assemblies came on the heels of localization. Justices and sheriffs in most Northern colonies were appointed. The exception was in Pennsylvania, where the sheriff was elected locally, but was subject to approval from the governor. . . .

North Carolina was prompted to extend the county system into its newly settled areas. Though the local government was widely accepted, there were problems with malpractice by county officials and those empowered to manage public affairs. . . .The same problem began to occur in South Carolina, where regulations had to be established to reform the office and to prevent abuses by county government officials.

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Copyright © 1998, 1999 Harry C. Buffardi ©

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